What makes a book a thriller?
Does a fine piece of literature sink into airport bookstore, spinning-rack-of-paperbacks realm when—gasp—an unexpected dead body appears?
I don’t know.
I know you probably can’t pull it off any better than Ron Carlson does in “The Signal.”
In an interview with Jenny Shank in New West Books & Writers, however, Carlson said he realized he inserted a “thriller element” into a relationship story—and might need forgiveness from readers for doing so.
“This book could have been a relationship story of two people in the woods, and I thought no, I’m going to reach here,” he said. “I’m going to take a chance and make something kind of larger than life and hope that I’m forgiven for it. I wanted a lot to happen, more than I could handle. As I worked on the last fifty pages of this book you can see that I’m sort of minimal. Anything that I could tuck away without having to explain it, I did.”
Carlson is forgiven.
The book would have worked just as well without the dead body—although I also think the dead body (spoiler alert: found in a experimental drone aircraft that has crashed) also sends a “signal” to main character Mack that anything can happen and they sometimes end badly. Mack’s fear from that point forward in the book is palpable. It’s the moment when loses control. It’s a shock. It’s a thriller element.
Like Carlson’s equally compelling “Five Skies” before it, the rough outdoors is the backdrop for “The Signal.”
Where “Five Skies” owned Idaho, “The Signal” is pure Wyoming. The story is ostensibly about Mack and Yvonne’s annual hike in the mountains and their attempt to reconnect. It’s also very much about Mack—a “bus full of ghosts”—trying to search for a rudder in life. “Every day since he had walked away from jail had been a lesson in assembling himself, and he did not want to lose that.”
Mack and Yvonne hike, camp, fish, eat. The scenes crackle to life, often through food.
(The meal scenes in both “Five Skies” and “The Signal” are mini lessons in how to eat well in the outdoors.)
Carlson has the ability to zoom in and zoom out of telling details. His sentences stretch effortlessly. “Then the trail was packed dirt winding down the first western slope, sage and berried-scrub and willows until they entered the trees again at a place they called the Gateway because of the great dead skeleton of a ponderosa standing over the trail, and high in it on a huge branch strung an old withered pair of hiking boots that had hung there through the years.”
In the interview, Carlson said he likes to start small with a story—in this case, a guy cooking on a stove on the back of a pick-up. Carlson said he wanted the opening scenes to be organic so he can “earn” the other elements when they come.
As much as Mack and Yvonne are alone, of course, they are not. Mack is searching for the drone—and keeps the search and its purpose away from Yvonne. There are others in the mountains with other plans, needs and cross-purposes—including poachers.
Mack and Yvonne are also not alone because Mack has made a choice in his own life, a choice prompted by desperation and guided by his pride.
The ending has elements of a thriller and suspense, but Carlson’s writing remains restrained and keen-eyed as Mack struggles to stand up to evil forces inside and out.
“Five Skies” and “The Signal” make fascinating counterparts. Two states. Two men working to tell new stories about themselves. Two men struggling and dealing with the outdoors. Two men who deal with interior landscapes as rugged as the ones where they work and walk.
Thiller? Literature? Definitely the latter. And entertaining stuff either way.